Harvard-Brown Game: Splendor on the Grass


Field Notes from Harvard-Brown

By five o’clock, the Harvard-faithful surged down JFK Street. They came in loosely packed shuttles from the Quad and in tight-knit droves from the river houses, and at the confluence of JFK and Mt. Auburn the channels merged and streamed across the river. When they crested Anderson Bridge, some people wanted cheap sunglasses to block out the still-bright sun and the glaring river, but by the time they reached Cumnock Field they’d decided they didn’t need them.

A handful of well-contained tailgates formed alongside the access road to the fields. Here, old men drank Sam Adams out of the backs of hatchbacks, looking austere in their pleated khakis and navy windbreakers and ball caps. Also nearby there were young families with small children, and you had to be careful not to swear when cutting past them. There were girlfriends in from Worcester for the weekend and girls up from Wellesley, but the telltale promise of the day lay in a group of kids wearing Boston College gear. After all, their school had a real football team, ACC and everything, and they’d even had a game earlier that afternoon. But here they were anyway, albeit a little off to the side of the main event. They must have had high hopes for Harvard-Brown. The game was Harvard-Brown—that much was sure—but the tailgate was Brown-Harvard, at least in its early stages. The visitors had come to Cambridge with a vengeance, and perhaps it was not unmerited in light of their ancient history.

It dated back to the early decades of the seventeenth century, when Cambridge was still Newe Towne, and the college was but a twinkle in John Harvard’s distant eye. There was in Massachusetts a relatively progressive clergyman by the name of Roger Williams, who among other things disdained the King of England and suggested paying the Indians for their land. It was a strange time, for the government of Massachusetts hated liberal public policies, and they exiled Roger Williams. In due time he established himself along the Narragansett Bay, and he named his settlement after the Providence which had brought him safe thus far. A century later, his city bore a university of its own, and it was this university which on Saturday had sent its sons and daughters back to the Bay State. By the time the stock of the Puritans arrived to pitch their tailgates, the city on a hill had been invaded by the libertines from Rhode Island.

The heirs of Roger Williams seemed worthy of their heritage. They liberally poured libations into their red plastic cups, and they consumed a liberal number of these cups, and by the looks and smells of things they had embraced a particularly progressive drug policy that bordered on libertarianism. They were conservative only in dress, but this seemed purely the result of their school’s name and color. Even this rule had its exception, though, and it came in the form of a particularly addled character. He was clad in a Hawaiian shirt and uncomfortably short shorts and a bucket hat, all of them psychedelically colored so as to lend him the general appearance of a Jefferson Airplane concert poster. An anti-narcotics campaign should have photographed him for a poster of their own, and captioned it “This Is Your Ivy League Student On Drugs.” He established a habit of mocking the Harvard passerby for their fashion choices, and in so doing served as a distillation of much that is wrong in this world. He made one long for the stocks and pillories and facial brandings and other public shaming that were the glory of the Massachusetts Bay colony. When he called out a Harvard man for wearing a white collar over a crimson sweatshirt, he ended his sartorial review with the phrase “That is whack, man.” But at this particular moment the universe saw fit to dispense a certain measure of justice, for the Harvard man stopped in his tracks and stared at the Brown kid. “And you look like someone ate a box of Crayolas and shit them out,” he said drily.

One would hope that there were a number of hostilities of this nature, for great games and great tailgates are made of such stuff. When the sight of an opponent’s colors makes people see red, then Harvard will know football. There was one student who was on the receiving end of both schools’ wrath. He wore a grey sweatshirt with HARVARD emblazoned across the front in brown letters. It was reminiscent of those concussion baseline tests and public art projects which feature words like “BLUE” in green letters. It was easy to see why it bothered people, and the general effect seemed to annoy the Harvard fans who were not colorblind, and upset the Brown fans who were not illiterate. However, there were also more cordial exchanges. One Brown fan wanted a beer so badly that he swore some rapidly formulated and administered oath about Harvard being vastly superior to Brown. He then mentioned that he was Brown undergrad but was now going for a Ph. D in economics here at Harvard, and what did the beer-giver think of that, and, well, actually the only reason he was wearing Brown apparel at all was because his girlfriend had told him to. At this point he was given another beer oath-free and settled down.

By now the sun was setting, and the cold beer was getting warm and the flavored vodka was finally cooling off in the evening air. The Brown crew had long since peaked, but Harvard’s own entered their zenith as they finally had the numbers and fortifications to make the tailgate their own. There was an admitted lack of games and grills, but it was probably for the best that open flames were kept apart from the teetering masses. A cacophony blasted forth from the assembled speakers of rival tailgates, and kids gyrated in the bed of a pickup truck, and people made vain attempts to find each other. Some students had come only to get free Boston Calling tickets, but had decided to stay for the free drinks. Others had come for the free drinks and had decided to stay because there ended up being more free drinks than anticipated. For many, it was the first tailgate they had ever attended, and they were quite taken with it. But there were also a pair of juniors who had tailgated every home game last fall, and even they trilled at the sight of this one. Evidently they used the word “tailgate” very loosely, because their pregame festivities had consisted primarily of splitting a handle of cheap bourbon in a dorm room on the river, then heading over to the game. But this, this was the real McCoy. And nowhere was that more evident than on the face of a former Harvard football player. He had stopped playing before his senior year on account of concussion troubles, and Harvard-Brown marked the first game he would enjoy purely as a student and a spectator. And for him the pregame was proof enough that maybe, just maybe, the football team did matter.

At a quarter of seven the police started moving the good-timers toward the stadium and met with general success. Some students had crisp clean tickets, but others had only their Harvard ID’s, and these were rebuffed by the security guards who told them to go over to will call. Somewhere amidst the growing din, the referee placed a whistle to his lips and the crowd buzzed as college football returned to the old warhorse of a stadium for the first time since The Game.

At halftime, Harvard was up by thirty-seven points, and by most accounts the game was over, and the home crowd forged back across the Charles and lost themselves in the night.

Jess Clay ’17 (jclay@college.harvard.edu) eagerly looks forward to more home games this season.